Blacks, Koreans struggle toward tolerance

Issue deeper than race, say L.A. group members

April 28, 2002|By K. Connie Kang and Lisa Richardson | K. Connie Kang and Lisa Richardson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

LOS ANGELES - The progress in black-Korean relations since the 1992 riots is measured by the friendship that Kapson Lee and Arlene Whitfield are cultivating. It's measured by the fact that the Rev. Antony Beckham, a black man, pastors a church of Koreans. It's measured by the way young Koreans and blacks hobnob at a Chinatown nightclub.

The progress - or lack of it - is also measured by how young black residents near a Korean-owned grocery store in South-Central Los Angeles refuse to shop there: They are convinced the owner disrespects them. He is scared, afraid one misspoken word will create an incident.

The gulf between these two cultures was unmasked by the riots, when 2,200 Korean-owned businesses suffered about $400 million in damage. As the rest of Los Angeles would learn, the tension had been building.

Two weeks after the Rodney King beating, a Korean-American woman, whose grocery store had been the target of gangs for months, fatally shot a black girl after an altercation. She was convicted of voluntary manslaughter but was sentenced only to probation. Five months later, when the riots broke out, Korean-owned businesses came under siege. One of the riots' most indelible images was of Korean men, armed with rifles, standing on the roofs of their businesses, substituting for the police who had retreated.

Low-income blacks, as they had for years, complained that Korean merchants in their neighborhoods treated them with contempt and suspicion. The merchants complained that crime had hardened them. The truth was, and remains, more complex. Language, culture and mutual ignorance conspire against both sides.

Ever since the riots, blacks and Koreans have organized countless sensitivity sessions, prayer meetings and trips to Korea. The differences from 1992, along with examples of a frustrating inertia, are subtle but telling.

Start with a market on South Main Street in a black-Latino neighborhood.

All day long, the customers come, children clutching coins for candy, young mothers with toddlers in tow, middle-aged men buying a six-pack of beer and cigarettes.

"Papa, I owe you $26. I'll pay on Friday," a middle-aged black customer with slightly graying hair tells the Korean owner.

"You always pay," the owner responds with a smile, as he puts his customer's purchases inside a black plastic bag, handing it through an opening in a bullet-proof partition.

The owner, who asked that his name not be used, conducts most of his business standing behind the transparent shield, topped by an iron grill.

"I try to be joyful," he says, "to have a thankful heart." But like many of the two dozen Korean-American store owners in South-Central, he is drained. Most customers are easy to serve, he says, but a few "troublemakers" haunt him.

Outside the market another day, a black girl, 15-year-old Latasha Johnson, is about to buy ice cream but says that on principle she will not shop at this store. "Everybody here doesn't like that man, and now we leave him alone," she said of the owner. The problem, she says, is that his fear of black customers leads him to behave insultingly.

Many of the estimated 1,100 Korean-American market owners in Los Angeles County, staggered by the passion of the riots, have become more sensitive about dealing with their customers, especially blacks. A Times reporter who has informally tracked this dynamic for years found more outward gestures of respect and friendship. Some give presents to their customers at Christmas, attend funerals, contribute to scholarships for black students or join block clubs. In addition, the influx of Latinos to South-Central and the departure of tens of thousands of blacks to the suburbs has changed the demographic mix. South-Central was 36.6 percent black in 2000, compared with 48 percent in 1990.

But the fundamental differences between Korean shopkeepers and black customers make their encounters precarious equations of necessity.

The two cultures rarely live together. For example, in the 10 Los Angeles County census tracts with the heaviest black population, largely in South Central, Koreans make up an average of 6 percent. In the 10 tracts with the heaviest Korean populations, largely in several Mid-City neighborhoods, blacks make up an average of less than 0.5 percent.

While many of the Korean-American shopkeepers' customers are poor and have marginal education, 80 percent of the merchants are college graduates, their economic advancement stymied by the language barrier. They come from a hierarchal Confucian culture, in which sizing up people by their age, education and social standing is second-nature; egalitarianism is an alien concept. From the blacks' point of view, the idea of a neighborhood business that has no community commitment is just as alien.

Experts from both groups are weary of the emphasis on race. They plead for a more sophisticated analysis.

"We haven't developed a manner to actually talk about and work through problems of race, class and gender," says Brenda Stevenson, a black University of California, Los Angeles history professor who has written a still-unpublished book on the case of Latasha Harlins, the South-Central teen fatally shot by a Korean grocer in 1991.

K. Connie Kang and Lisa Richardson are reporters for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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